Will women remake the face of the American city?

Theodore Liebman, New York chapter president of the American Institute of Architects and a planner of national and international experience, argues that they will. More than men, working women--especially those who expect to excel in their fields--need the convenience of inner-city or close-in neighborhood living. Working women, argues Liebman, can be the driving force behind inner-city housing revitalization.

It's a fascinating and novel theory, one I'd not heard before. So I spent some hours of a hot summer day exploring it with Liebman. His view of the interplay of American families, lifestyle and residential choice goes something like this:

The American dream of the 1950s was "Dad at work, mom at home, two children in school, Little Leagues, Brownie troops, the single-family home in the suburbs." But the suburban life made women prisoners of a boring life--constrained by walking distances for conveniences, by cars for shopping, by chauffeuring children to every activity.

That helped set the stage for the women's revolution and the '70s, when women began to achieve in the work place. Many put marriage and children on the back burner. The idea was to achieve first in business and decide about kids later.

Now that's changing--women once again want children earlier. But the '50s will never return. Today, only 18 percent of families are the typical mom, dad, two kids under 17. Two-thirds of women with children between the ages of six and 17 are working, compared to just under 50 percent in 1970. Thirty-two million children, or 55 percent of those under 18, have mothers in the work force. That means that tens of millions of adult Americans worry about what their children do before a parent gets home.

Women tend to be the primary parent. A working mother says, "If Johnny has a 102-degree fever, I want to work where I can get home in 15 minutes." She may not consider a single, suburban family home her ultimate goal. She may well say, "If I'm a woman in banking and the banking center is downtown, I want to be within a few minutes of that. To deal with being wife, mother and a professional, it's much easier for me to have a convenient condominium-- close to recreation, shopping and work, with a health club, a nursery, a deli and other conveniences close by."

And if that's true of many married women, Liebman suggests, it's even more true of the single parent, who has to work and yet bear full responsibility for a child. His own architectural firm (Liebman Ellis Melting) has been designing residential developments including such amenities as health clubs, community rooms, saunas, swimming pools, day-care centers and easily accessible shops.

In Chicago, Bertrand Goldberg, architect of the famed Marina City, is developing a high-density new town south of the Loop, "River City." The buildings, quite handsome in architectural design, will include a wide variety of services needed by two-earner households, ranging from the project's own schools to stores and a Control Data "business and technology" center offering major employment opportunities for residents.

These developments should presage growing inner-city and close-in housing developments across the country. If one looks today to Boston or Dallas, Baltimore or Philadelphia, Seattle or Memphis, Portland, Maine, or Portland, Ore., examples spring to mind. It's hard to think of a major U.S. city that hasn't recently received a fresh burst of inner-city medium-to-upper income housing, some of it for the first time in decades.

The drawback, warns Liebman, is that those projects aren't great enough in number yet to reverse the population drain center cities have experienced for the last few decades. "The American dream from the '40s to the '70s--that the suburban single-family home was the only answer--drained downtowns until they were unsafe places, left for derelicts, the low life of society and the urban poor."

So now, extraordinary coalitions--business, government, developers, neighborhood groups--are essential to create the range of urban amenities needed to restore security and liveability to U.S. downtowns, to make them as attractive as their European counterparts.

Liebman offers no magic formula for how that can be done. But he notes that each player has a vested interest in the process. Business benefits from a safer downtown when more people live there. Governments save big outlays when they're not forced to provide expensive services for new, outlying developments. Developers get a chance to make a dollar. And neighborhoods benefit greatly from the cultural diversity, the potentially broadened support for the schools, the more varied shops and services that are likely to follow middle-class resettlement of the city.

There's no doubt in Liebman's mind, when you press him, that millions of Americans will continue to prefer the suburbs, or that rural America may be able to draw not just retirees but a number of professionals at work in their remote "electronic cottages."

But, if for no other reason than giving Americans a full range of choices, Liebman argues, downtowns need to be recycled into vital places "where you feel comfortable, alone or with your family." Denver alone, he says, could use 12,000 new center city apartments right now--and he's drawn a map to show the vacant or underutilized lots where the housing could go.

Liebman is a cityphile if I ever met one: He recalls that his own family moved from a suburb back into Newark in 1952, because he and his brother were bored by suburban life and his mother had a job in town. A family 30 years ahead of its time, one might say.

What Liebman brings to the debate is futuristic insight: that strong and revitalized center cities and neighborhoods may be precisely what's missing--and needed--to accommodate the leading edge of America's fastest rising new professional cadre, its working women.